The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.

While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.

Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.

Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.

Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.

In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...

During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.

Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.

Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.

The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.

Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.

Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.

Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

20th Century Stereo Viewers

20th Century Stereo Viewers

Remember the View-Master you had as a kid? Check out all the hundreds of cool-looking variations you never knew exi… [read review or visit site]

View-Master Resource

View-Master Resource

While many people think of View-Masters as toys, Eddie Bowers, who runs View-Master Resource, clearly considers the… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Kiss - Original Viewmaster W/ Kiss Picture Reels New 1978 / 1979 Aucoin - Rare2 Rare 1940's Sawyers View-master Model A & B Blue & Black Round W/ Original BoxVintage Viewmaster Reels + Projector + Optiview Sawyers Gaf View Master LotAntique Stereoscope Stereoviewer Stereo Viewer 23 Stereoview Card Lot Keystone +Lot Of 387 Vintage Viewmaster Reels - Mostly 1960's Or Earlier - Good ConditionViewmaster 3-dimension Focusing Viewer 1939 Worlds Fair “tru-vue” Stereo Viewer Set In Original Box. Vtg Lot 32 Reel Sets (96 ) & 112 Reels Sawyer View-master Apollo Expo67 Travel Big Viewmaster Lot Of 4 Viewers And 60 Reels, Fairy Tales, Scenic, Bible, AnimalAntique Stereoscope Stereo Viewer - Good Cond. - Starting Low With No Reserve !!Sawyer's View-master With 66 Reels27 Lot Vintage Viewmaster Reels + 3-d Viewer Model E Box + Product BrochureVintage View Master Stereo Pictures Lot Of 12 - 1960's - Alaska - Florida, Pa. Viewmaster Model B Stereo Viewer. Stereoscope. Usa Sawyers View-masterViewmaster Model D Lighted Focusing Viewer As IsLot Of 11 Different View-master 3 Reel Packets (4)72 Vintage View Master Slides1950s Kodak Kodaslide Stereo Viewer 6 Pockets Of Viewmaster Reels -ufo, Moon, Adventure, Animals, Disney, Indian250 Plus View-master ReelsLot Of 11 Different View-master 3-reel Packets (2)Vintage View Master Stereo Pictures Lot Of 12 - Mecca, Austria, Marseille, OrlyHuge Lot Vintage Viewmaster Viewers (3) + 59 Reels + Box - Gaf / SawyerView-master With Souvenir Set Of Elvis Presley Graceland View-masters 24 Assorted View Master ReelsRare Stereoscope Stereo Viewer Underwood & Underwood & Stand Jerusalem Volume +Lot Of 12 Different View-master 3 Reel Packets (3)Vintage Realist Stereo Viewer Set With Interchangeable CartridgesViewmaster - 8 Different U.s. Themed SetsThe Banana Splits View-master Stereo Pictures Mint In Package W/booklet 1970Viewmaster Packet Storage Case Red/white With Matching Model G ViewerVintage Viewmaster Lot 223 Reels With 2 ViewersViewmaster - 9 Factory Sealed 3-reel Packets66 Empty View-master Reels And 2 View-master Album10 Vintage Gaf Viewmaster Slides In Spanish, Var. Countries 1970-1979, UnopenedVintage Disney View Master Gaf New Orleans Square And The Haunted Mansion Reels13 Vintage National Plastic View Master ReelsVintage Sawyer's View-master Deluxe Gift Pak (lighted)Viewmaster - 6 Different Hawaii Themed Sets Lot Of Over 100 View-master Reels Reel Singles Sets Etc Collection Lot MiscLot Of 10 Different View-master 3 Reel Packets (5)Gaf Talking Viewmaster Spiderman & Sawyer's Viewmaster With A Big Lot Of ReelsLot 34+ View-master Reels With Storage Case & View-master National Parks Disney+Vintage View Master - The Dukes Of Hazzard - With Book - L17 - 1980South Korea View Master Packet 1960s + San Juan Puerto Rico - NiceViewmaster Seattle Worlds Fair 1962 4 Reels Space Needle Monorail Exhibits EtcGaf Talking View-master Reels Lot Of 8 1960-70s19 Rare View Master Reels - 1950's-1970's Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck & More... Meopta Meoskop Iii. Stereoscope Stereo Viewer. Viewmaster. Two Tone Black GreyLot Of 12 Vintage Disney View Master Reels Mickey, Cinderella, Snow White & MoreVintage View-master Reels -lot Of 4 SetsViewmaster - 8 Different Worldwide Themed SetsViewmaster B 6551 Vanguard Launching Cape Canaveral ©1958Viewmaster Case With 60+ Viewmaster Reels , Mainly Usa Viewmaster - Dark Shadows - Very Scarce Set!!Viewmaster 70 Reels Lot BViewmaster 70 Reels Lot CLot Of 10 Different View-master 3 Reel Packets (6)Viewmaster - Graceland Mansion, MemphisViewmaster Reel 3d News 1979 Reel